Ontological Commitment and De-Subjectivation in Maya Shamanic Practice

Thu, Apr 8, 2021, 4:30 pm

This talk is in a workshop format.

This abstract outlines aspects of the ritual practice of a Maya shaman with whom I was fortunate to work and record over the last 16 years of his life. His name was Sebastian, known locally as Don Chabo, and he is referred to in this paper by his initials DC. Here I hope to spell out two fundamental elements of DC’s practice and way of being. The first is what I will call his ontological commitments, that is, what he held to exist as the necessary basis and frame of reference of his own practices. I am concerned equally with what he asserted to exist, and how that shaped his ritual practice and lifeworld.  Among DC’s existent beings were scores of named spirits with whom he worked regularly. This meyah, ‘work,’ entailed invoking them by name in precise ways and sequences, all of it articulated to an elaborate cosmology and chanted in highly marked language.

Men in field eating          The second element I will examine are the transformations that DC himself underwent in the process of ritual performance. The key focus will be the ways in which DC relinquished aspects of his own subjectivity, in order to channel the creative and restorative force of spirits. He moved spirits into the altar space, bodies, homes, and lives of his patients, beneficiaries, and indeed into himself. At times he became a sort of Doppelgänger of the patient, whose suffering was occurring synchronously in DC’s body, during exorcism known as paá' 'ìik', ‘smash spirit/wind.’ In his prayer across all genres of performance, DC routinely spoke not from his own bodily perspective, but from the perspective of the santo that was opposite and physically facing him on his altar, relinquishing his own Origo for that of his divine addressee.

The transposition is motivated by the fact that the santo is a counterpart of Jesus, and DC is giving himself over to Jesus. But what makes it work is the ontological framing of the altar space, and the play of transpositions it potentiates. There are several other features of performance that progressively attenuate DC’s subjecthood, emptying him, narrowing his attention focus, and reducing him to a state he called chichan, ‘tiny.’ To be tiny was to be maximally receptive, unburdened by thought, channeling the spirits who spoke their names through his throat, as he sounded them in the chanted prayer.   


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Co-Sponsored with the David A. Gardner Magic Innovation Fund and the Humanities Council